Barbican Theatre, London International Mime Festival; 28th January 2016
Australian company Circa arrive back on UK shores with a wash of scenes that paint a tense journey of migrancy and the pressures that can bring to human relationships. The six acrobats (Nathan Boyle, Daniel O’Brien, Nicole Faubert, Bridie Hooper, Brittannie Portelli, Duncan West) are joined by classical musicians who play themes from Monteverdi’s opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, which also appear in colder, reworked digital adaptations. The austere beauty of the brutalist Barbican theatre is a perfect setting for a show that mixes the traditionally ‘high’ and ‘low’ arts of classical music and circus into a new cultural hybrid, allowing us to question where aesthetic value really lies.
Strength and support emerge as themes in The Return, as well as being the essential tools used by the acrobats and opera singers in their work, both internally and externally. I don’t know the music or its context, but I can feel its drama.
Stage design, from Jason Organ and Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz, is starkly powerful. A simple wall of metal, lowering and foreshortening the stage against the vast tracts of space beyond, marks a confined cargo hold, later seen as a border wall to be scaled, or an internment camp’s fence. There’s a sense of Australia’s own convict cargo history alongside the contemporary relevance of displaced people.
I find it bizarre that the seamless vision that has created some striking imagery through blending acrobatics, dance and theatre has not been extended to the presence of the musicians onstage, who maintain their own traditions of dress and presentation, still two separate worlds sitting next to each other rather than integrating. Mezzo Soprano Kate Howden‘s bright purple dress, in a sea of muted greys, is a particular sore thumb – although the storytelling of her facial expressions while performing is a delight.
From bodies crushed to the floor under unseen pressures, aerial biographies, and acrobatic contact-dance interactions amongst the movement company, we gather a picture of suffering and striving. But that picture never manages to leave the stage and enter my heart. To adapt a sentiment from Mim King‘s recent review of Expiry Date, Circa have impressed, but not touched me, with this latest show.
For me the night is saved by Hooper, who rescues The Return from being a monotone montage of douleur with a desperate energy and tragic submission that carry her across the ground, over her fellow performers, or upon the aerial stirrups in contortions that bear the grotesque emotional charge of a Francis Bacon painting. Of course, it could be that her brilliance simply eclipses the still-brightness of her castmates.
Boyle is a grounding, stabilising figure in his presence as much as his basing role, and Faubert matches the precision of her balance with a dancer’s precision of point and flex. All are highly skilled technical performers.
In the post-show talk, Lifschitz draws upon a Warhol’s quote – ‘sex and parties are the only things you have to actually be there for’ – and adds circus as a third. While that is undoubtably true for the performers, in this case, as an audience member, I am able to drift in and out, and never find myself invested in the snapshots they show me. With the current crisis of refugees, I can see them just as clearly on the nightly news, and those hit harder.